Ten Years Later

How Heath Ledger's Joker changed superhero movies ten years later.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in

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Heath Ledger as The Joker in "The Dark Knight"

Thomas Guccione, Assistant Editor

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A superhero movie is only good as the villain the hero is fighting.

On this day in 2009, Heath Ledger posthumously won The Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actor” for his infamous role as The Joker in “The Dark Knight.” It is still the only Oscar won by an actor or actress in a DC or Marvel Movie.

The legacy Ledger left changed what we look for in superhero movies and how superhero movies are made.

First let’s talk about what made his performance standout.

Before “The Dark Knight,” the gold standard for villains in a superhero movie was Jack Nicholson as The Joker in “Batman” (1989). Ledger went as far away from that performance as possible. Nicholson portrayed a very cartoony Joker; one that only could be in a movie. But Ledger went for a messy and real look. He makes it seem as though anyone has the ability to be the Joker, and he’s trying to show everyone in Gotham that. Nicholson is goofy and weird, but Ledger is cynical and remorseful. Ledger finds a way to be calculated and edgy. He moves like a man with a plan but “just wants to watch the world burn.” More than anything else, Ledger played an incredibly dangerous villain himself, while also representing the dark side in everyone.

To understand just how impactful Ledger’s Joker was, it’s important to look at films where a clear footprint was left by Ledger.

In 2018, Marvel released two of its most successful films ever, “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The thing that these movies did as well as any movie since “The Dark Knight” is having the viewer understand the villains motives and where those motives came from. 

In “Black Panther,” we get Killmonger’s full backstory. We understand and in some way empathize with his lust and jealousy that he has for T’Challa. At some point everyone has thought “that should be me.” Killmonger is also wonderfully played by Michael B. Jordan. Jordan masterfully shows us just how much jealousy and anger has been building up in Killmonger.

In “Avengers: Infinity War” we got the biggest, most powerful villain in the MCU we’ve ever had: Thanos. Now as characters go, The Joker and Thanos are on two ends of the spectrum. The Joker is sadistic and sly, but Thanos is calm and prophetical. But if you really think about it, the end goal isn’t too far off for these two iconic villains. The Joker just wants to watch the world burn while Thanos wants to return the universe to balance, sounds like two sides of the same coin (sorry Two Face) What really makes these two standout is how adverse to clichés these two are. The Joker is essentially the anti-villain, he’s not power hungry and he doesn’t even want to kill Batman, he’s simply an “agent of chaos.” Thanos has the size and appearance of a brute, but he’s cunning and wise, he doesn’t want power or anarchy, he wants balance. What makes these two villains legendary is they don’t fit any prior mold, they march to their own drum.

Although Killmonger and Thanos do a wonderful job in their roles and play them as well as they could, they’re still missing what Ledger put in front of the camera. Killmonger and Thanos are evil, but they aren’t cynical, they aren’t sadistic and they certainly aren’t creepy. Killmonger and Thanos make you fear them with their power, The Joker made your stomach turn over not because he’s powerful, but because he’s psychotic. He left you feeling queasy because he’s crazy AND human. He doesn’t have superpowers or an iron suit. He brought the worst feelings in the deepest part of everyone’s psyche to the forefront. Ledger made it seem as though anyone could’ve become The Joker, that’s more frightening Thanos having all six stones. He gave you an uneasy feeling that’s on par with the feeling you get after watching “Silence of the Lambs.”

But superhero movies are evolving. “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” were wildly successful in part because they had strong and complex villains. The shift to having complex villains can be directly attributed to Heath Ledger’s award winning performance. Filmmakers are now using their creative outlet to try and explain the darker parts of human nature.  

Ledger passed away shortly after the filming of “The Dark Knight.” According to his family and to those who worked on the film, Ledger loved his creative endeavor on “The Dark Knight.” “It was the most fun I’ve ever had and probably the most fun I ever will have” Ledger said about playing The Joker in one of his last interviews.

It’s been theorized but never confirmed, that playing The Joker drove Ledger to insanity and eventually lead to his drug abuse. His commitment to the character is the stuff of legend. From never breaking character to keeping a “Joker Diary” with him to containing himself in a hotel room to find the perfect interpretation.

He fully committed himself to his art.

He never saw his full creation and he never saw how his performance impacted filmmaking forever. He never got to accept his Oscar. He never saw his legacy grow and he never saw the creative revolution he caused. 

Ledger left shoes fit for a clown for future villains to fill. He can rest easy though because no one has filled them yet, but they’re getting closer, thanks to him.

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